Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.
On a localised level, Khan’s peerless status has been as deleterious as every single bloody movie sequel going invoking The Empire Strikes Back as a benchmark for tone. Soon or later, a new yardstick will need to come along to replace these early ‘80s triumphs, but it likely won’t be until filmmakers, cease feeding, Ouroboros-like, so shamelessly off their movie antecedents. You might suggest Lucas was merely dusting off Flash Gordon in the way subsequent makers are currently dusting off a few decades-old influences, but there’s more to it than that, and in far more incestuous form.
Nicholas Meyer (himself being dusted off for the new Trek show, in conception a great prospect, but as Lawrence Kasdan’s involvement in later Indy and Star Wars has illustrated, there’s a great deal of difference between an artist at their peak creative powers and one in a later period, no longer humming with the same hunger – I say that without no clue what Meyer may bring to the table, except that most of his credits of late have been adaptations) was inspired, famously, by all things nautical, most specifically Captain Horatio Hornblower (and, of course, Khan’s obsession with Moby Dick, Ricardo Montalban lending Herman Melville Shakespearean grandeur). Gene Roddenberry may also have cited Hornblower as an influence, but it’s relatively indistinct set against Meyer’s overt summoning.
In an age where blockbusters and TV are prone to becoming essentially big budget fan fiction, it’s sobering to note that Meyer was entirely divorced from allegiance to the show proper, which he purported not to have even seen. And yet, he entirely understands the characters, adding substance so formidable that one is encouraged to trace backwards from the interactions here into their earlier personas, rather than seeing Khan as just the next stage in their relationships. A wise Trek inheritor would have seen this aspect as the necessary inspiration to truly capture the picture’s spirit.
Instead, we’ve had two series movies since overtly attempting to brew up that Star Trek II magic, and due to either slavishly following its action/sacrifice model (Star Trek: Nemesis) or plundering its characters to entirely cheapening effect (Star Trek Into Darkness, which even pulls a reverse-the-death trick, and then instantly backtracks on it, so mercenary are its motives), mostly flounder. The former’s foul-up was at least understandable, since attempting a less action-orientated movie with Star Trek: Insurrection hadn’t reaped the required dividends (alas, by the time of Nemesis audiences clearly weren’t interested either way), but Into Darkness is less forgivable.
Mostly because JJ Abrams should have known better; his reboot had already succeeded, against the odds. He didn’t need to go there. He had fans as writers, but he wasn’t a card carrying Trekkie, so he was in the ideal position not to succumb. And yet he displayed every worst instinct in exploiting series mythology that only fans would care about, and who, perversely, would be the ones who were pissed off at the way he had diminished it. He’s only one of many to do this in recent years, of course. The reign of Steven Moffatt over Doctor Who has been one long tenure of inane self-cannibalisation, where outside themes and influences may as well not exist (unless they’re his own earlier sitcoms).
It’s doubly ironic that Khan should be so preeminent, since, as unbeholden as he is to series lore, Meyer’s achievements outside the Trek sphere have been generally less acclaimed. He’s a Sherlock Holmes uber-fan, of course, which surprisingly doesn’t appear to have harmed his ability to tell good Holmes tales (I won’t bring up Moffat again: no, really), so perhaps he just generally has a rare knack for interpret existing material with a fresh eye. As he said of Khan, “The chief contribution I brought to Star Trek II was a healthy disrespect”, trying to make the characters more human through instilling a certain irreverence. The result, to paraphrase Kirk’s eulogy for Spock, is that of all the Trek movies, Meyer’s is the most… human.
The notoriously hard to please Pauline Kael loved the film (“You enjoy being with this group; you enjoy their company”), in a period when most critics would at best admit to begrudging appreciation, amid tired remarks about soft focus, toupees and Zimmer frames (which, since most of the leads were either in their 40s or 50s – only Kelley and Doohan had reached sexagenarian status – showed a spuriously ageist fixation). As most did when it came out (and still do), she compared it favourably to the much-maligned Motion Picture, asserting that “This time, with a different group of moviemakers in charge, the actors carry the story and the effects are secondary – they serve the dramatic situations” and Meyer “taps the goodwill you have toward the crew of the Enterprise by showing you the good will they have toward one another”. Hallowed turf, indeed. She also, rightly, referred to it as “endlessly inventive” and, even if she displays the sadly superior distaste for science fiction storytelling that is/was de rigueur, she admits, “The pieces of the story fit together so beautifully that eventually he has you wrapped in the foolishness”.
Kirk: Yes, we’ve been through death and life together.
For Khan constitutes a remarkably satisfying, fully-formed piece of plot and character work, so much so it seems scarcely conceivable that the coda, leaving open Spock’s potential for rebirth on the Genesis planet, wasn’t intrinsic to the design. The themes of age, death (Meyer finally got to use his choice of title for the sixth movie in the series) and birth marble almost every scene without ever once feeling intrusive, but we’re expected to believe it was mere happenstance that enabled a get-out for the finality of the First Officer’s demise? Shatner likes to merrily imply otherwise, that Meyer and Nimoy must have had something brewing up their sleeves, but the former’s absence from The Search for Spock speaks to his disapproval of his grand design being tampered with at the final moment.
McCoy: Suppose they went nowhere?
Kirk: Then this will be your big chance to get away from it all.
The thematic richness is ingrained in the picture’s physical and character constructs, such that the first scene sets out the store of impossible scenarios with the Kobyashi Maru test and then proceeds to bob and weave through ruminations on death and the natural order throughout; all things must pass, but Kirk has spent his life avoiding this truth.
Khan, meanwhile, is the embodiment of perverting the way things are supposed to be (messing with nature makes monsters, be they personified or planetoid), while McCoy (the humanist, and a man of deep moral conviction; despite ostensibly being a man of science, he time-and-again draws a distinction between his own values and the clinical amorality he sees Spock as espousing) points out the dangers of man acting like God with Genesis (“You’re talking about universal Armageddon!” – a scene that allows him to indulge his obligatory xenophobic outburst at Spock, lovably cantankerous old racist that Bones is).
Carol: Let me show you something that will make you feel young again, as when the world was new.
The picture’s ace in the pack is how it uses Kirk, and how the amassed themes impact upon him. Kael commented “If William Shatner can go beyond himself – if he can give the performance he does in his grief stricken scenes – who can doubt miracles?” I’m an unabashed fan of the Shat, but I’ll admit too it’s very evident that Meyer is extracting something special from here. You only have to look at The Search for Spock to see how a director – and an actor’s director at that – can misjudge a scene and leave a performer high and dry (I’m thinking of the “You Klingon bastard” scene; I know “KHAAAANNN!” here gets mocked, understandably the stuff of a thousand animated gifs, but it’s still a great moment).
Meyer had to convince Shatner of the merits of playing his age, and as it plays the movie has a – still relatively youthful middle-aged, although the girdle will be giving under the strain a couple of films down the line – middle-aged man fearing the process of decay (needing reading glasses, turning 50), regretting past mistakes and unsure on his place in his once clearly-defined world any more. His most loyal chums are as one, for a change, in their advice (“Get back your command, before you really grow old”; “If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept a promotion”).
Mature Kirk ought to be a natural progression of age balancing the impetuosity of youth, but he’s had conditions that come with the former enforced unnaturally upon him. When he announces “I feel young” at the end, it could easily have been trite, but it forms a recognition that, amid, death, he has reconnected what makes him tick. And this, despite a journey that has rudely rubbed his nose in past poor choices. That’s one of the real pleasures here, the contrast between the wry, glib Kirk with a figure prone to error both professionally and personally.
As Khan charges quite reasonably, Kirk “never bothered to check our progress”; just that little bit of diligence, rather than rushing on to the next adventure and then the next (or leaving it 100 years to check back) might have prevented all this pain. You can bet starchy old Picard would have looked in.
When confronted by the fact of his son, Kirk has the manner of the forlorn playboy who was let off the hook (“I did what you wanted – I stayed away”). He only slowly comes to perceive there was all that potential personal growth and sharing of lives he missed out on. Even now, his decisions, when he shows momentary rustiness and ignores by-the-book Saavik (“This is damn peculiar”; such a great line and delivery), lead to adverse consequences (notably the death of Scotty’s nephew).
Kirk: I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.
The means of beating the Kobyashi Maru is decidedly less inspired when reworked for Abrams’ Trek, but here it’s a wonderfully inventive summation of what makes Kirk Kirk (and again, it’s the kind of thing that reverberates back through the character – and on, of course, with his re-casting); “I don’t like to lose”, thus bookending the film and leading to that devastatingly affecting death scene. It finds Shatner, theatrical pauses intact, finally enabled to use them for great emotional heft.
For all that Spock’s passing is profound and defining, Kirk’s subsequent scene with David is also keenly resonant, as he openly admits to never having faced death, “not like this”, having always cheated or tricked it. It points up that Kirk is quite able to deliver sage advice to Saavik (“There’s no correct resolution – it’s a test of character”) but it’s a quite different thing have to live it. So Kirk is at an especially low ebb when David provides the validation he desperately needs; “I’m proud to be your son”. It’s a lovely riposte to an earlier scene, with Kirk opining to Carol, “You show me a son that’d be happy to help” in reference to Khan, bent on revenge.
Khan: He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.
And the parallels and contrasts between Kirk and Khan are wholly rewarding too. Khan is the richest of villains, despite, or because of, being played broadly and in bold, punchy strokes. The literary quotations are obviously butter to Montalban’s mouth (you can imagine Shat getting jealous, which is why he goes to town when he gets to lock horns with a slab of Sydney Carton during the epilogue).
I recall wondering if Joachim was supposed to be Khan’s son when I first saw the film; they certainly have that kind of closeness, underlined by Noonian vowing revenge at his demise. Joachim prefaces the pursuit of Kirk with “We’re all with you, sir, but consider this”, cogently summarising that they are free to pursue their lives and their very escape represents victory (“You do not need to defeat him again”).
It’s Khan’s own obsessiveness and hubris that leads to his downfall, and that he puts his needs before those of his crew. He modestly notes “It was only the fact of my genetically engineered intellect that allowed me to survive” on Ceti Alpha V (one thing the picture maybe inadvertently lead us to conclude is that his followers, “Sworn to live and die at my command 200 years before you were born”, are not of the same genetic accomplishment as their leader, which is a slight failing – certainly, their chests aren’t nearly as buffed).
The back-and-forth, cat-and-mouse between Kirk and Khan is a delight, from Kirk’s retaliation by lowering the Reliant’s shields (not only deft, but congruent, with the veneer of being technically reasonable), to Khan leaving him stranded (“I’ve done far worse than kill you. I’ve hurt you”), to using the Mutara Nebula as an ally (“Khan, I’m laughing at the 'superior intellect'”). Montalaban expressed regret that he and Shatner didn’t actually share a scene or exchange dialogue together, but you wouldn’t know from the tension created between the two actors in the editing room.
The philosophical implications of Genesis are the kind of thing The Motion Picture would have spent half an hour over (bless it, I do like the movie, though, bloated as it is) but they are disposed of in an economical scene here, and a biblical counterpart is even given form in Khan, the fallen angel seeking revenge for his slighting (“On Earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince”). He wishes to poison Eden – and ultimately he does so with the unstable sphere of The Search for Spock. It’s slightly unfortunate that he finishes up looking like Zelda out of Terrahawks, but you can’t have everything.
Spock: The ship... out of danger?
The third player in the game of Consequences is Spock, who contrasts with the two duelling leaders by approaching his choices with his eyes fully open. Such is Nimoy’s impact on the picture, I tend to imagine him to be more central than he actually is (in contrast, in VI, the main failing is that he’s too blatantly on the side-lines). Meyer’s writing of the relationship between the Bones-Kirk-Spock trio is consistently superb, and so deceptively effortless it foreshadows the main event as a gag at the outset (“Aren’t you dead?” Kirk asks following the Kobyashi Maru).
Spock is repositioned as the mentor (he’s Yoda to Saavik, and a far more compelling embodiment of the master-padawan relationship than Lucas could muster) as well as the supportive and dutiful friend, with an ever-present line in dry understatement (“Your final solution was, shall we say, unique” of reprogramming the Kobayashi Maru – at times he really is Jeeves to Kirk’s Wooster – his assessment of Khan – “He’s quite intelligent” – and the brilliant “by the book” misdirection of the ship’s status). He’s even mischievous, disconcerting Kirk by instructing Saavik to captain the Enterprise out of dry dock.
Saavik: You lied.
Spock: I exaggerated.
The above might be my favourite exchange in the film, even if it lacks the depth of the Kirk-Spock interplay. The early conversation between them succinctly reiterates all we know about their relationship with a marvellous sense of unassailable certainty (“You are my superior officer, and also my friend. I have been and always will be yours”). And, because it comes from Spock, it is presented as simple fact (and also because dialogue is so good), so there isn’t a trace of sentiment; it becomes gloriously life-affirming.
So too, the end portrays unfathomable loss, rather than wallowing in the chance for waterworks. Kirk is stunned and broken, while Spock remains keenly inquiring, and pointed in his wit, to the last (“I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?”) It’s also a reminder of the drawbacks of the Abrams reboot (and while I may be ragging on it by comparison, I do really like the first, and can enjoy the second as a piece of filmmaking, if much less so as a piece of writing), where they’re too ready to plunge into the emotive, ego-driven Spock, because that’s the only wheelhouse Abrams knows. Which means the essential balance of the characters is out of whack; too often they come across as squabbling teenagers.
Spock: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.
Khan is also, of course, a succinct exploration of the tenets of utilitarianism, so Gavin Hood at least probably venerates it. Spock’s approach is entirely natural for a logician, and also the only sensible one for a commander of men (even though this is a punch almost all narratives end up pulling when it comes to it), but The Search for Spock reneges on this with a resoundingly human rebuke (it’s much better on paper than in realisation, but again that’s down to Nimoy’s limitations as a first time feature director).
What’s most impressive about Khan is how concisely and clearly Meyer tells his story and addresses his themes; there’s no waste, and he never falters (even more admirable is that he turned the screenplay around in such a short space of time). It’s a picture that feels fast, yet Kirk isn’t engaging with the main plot until more than half an hour in, and his sparring with Khan is wrapped up only an hour later. It’s so confident in terms of dramatic thrust that a little goes a long way.
Added to which, this is a Star Trek picture that has a great sense of things going on in far corners of the universe. Introducing us to Chekov elsewhere is a very smart move, so it’s evident the crew actually do stuff apart (even if he’s the last one who should have been meeting Khan, although I don’t think that’s a big deal at all; it isn’t like he had an introduction scene in the second season). The reintroduction of Khan and the “In the 23rd century…” title lend the picture a mythic feel, of history and canvas the episodic instalments lacked (the Wrath of Khan title, particularly in contrast to the self-important The Motion Picture, also suggests a conscious attempt to ape the pulpy tone and trappings of the more dynamic Star Wars saga, while the coda, however consciously or otherwise, echoes the cliffhanger of Empire; the assembled cast on the bridge, contemplating the next move).
This is a movie that successfully blends other hitherto foreign elements with Trek. There’s a strong horror undercurrent (it was initially cut in the UK, and received a 15 rating when it first appeared unedited on video), and it’s unafraid to be influenced by Alien, even if just for a few scenes (an inhospitable planet surface, a derelict structure housing invasive creatures). Elsewhere, it plunders simple, straightforward shocks (the bloody bodies hanging from the rafters of Regula One).
Meyer’s also influenced by the mood of the ‘70s in a manner The Motion Picture avoided, suggesting the Federation is far from all sweetness and light (an approach that made The Next Generation so anodyne). All the better for creating drama and conflict. David complains “Scientists have always been pawns of the military”. To which his mother offers the counterpoint (“Star Fleet has kept the peace for 100 years”), but David must have got his ideas from somewhere. And one has to factor in the corner-cutting mentality of Chekov (“Does it have to be completely lifeless?”) to see cynicism alive and well in Rodenberry’s brave new universe.
Admittedly, Meyer includes the occasional crude segue; setting up Kirk’s relationship with Carol (an “overgrown boy scout”) feels clumsy, although I can see why it was felt necessary to establish their history before their first conversation. Scotty’s moment with his nephew’s charred body on the bridge doesn’t really make much sense without knowing the connection between them, but the Director’s Edition is even less desirable, as it makes the subplot feel too much like “This is Scotty’s big moment”.
Generally, though, everything is pretty much perfect. Uhura gets a bum deal, but then she usually does, and Sulu has to make way for Chekov getting a good role. Who gets to be witty (“... this is the garden spot of Ceti Alpha Six”) and even interact with the villain. I love the way tangential conversation comes in – Chekov is still protesting (“Captain Kirk was your host!”) when Khan has already moved onto more important things (“You didn’t expect to find me”). The verbal interactions are delicious in this film; they crackle and flow, are offhandedly witty (Bones’ “She change her hairstyle?”, to which Kirk replies “I hadn’t noticed”, after having just brought this up with Saavik), or punctuate the drama as much as an elaborate action sequence (Khan’s echoey “Buried alive, Buried alive” when he maroons Kirk).
Saavik: He’s so… human.
Spock: Nobody’s perfect, Saavik.
This is also a sequel where all the newcomers are well used. Kirstie Alley makes a strong impression (and big screen debut), and it’s disappointing Saavik is so much less subsequently, when Alley elected not to return (fearing typecasting; she must have been chatting to Nimoy on set). Bibi Besch and Merritt Butrick are believably cast as family members opposite Shatner, and the chemistry between them is instantaneous. Paul Winfield services a good death scene, and Judson Scott is a memorable right hand to Montalban.
Simply from a filmmaking standpoint too, Khan is immensely satisfying. Meyer is no master craftsman, but as a director he absolutely knows how to serve the story at every turn. This is a movie mostly taking place on two sets, but it never feels small. From Kirk’s entrance, silhouetted at the open bridge doors, to opting throughout for the subdued lighting of a submarine – making everything, from the bridge on down, so much more atmospheric – his instincts on how to make this distinct and different, but recognisably the same beast, are spot on.
And the editing, the effects and the music combine perfectly. Even the costumes, after the cheap looking Space: 1999 numbers in the previous film, are good, barring the tucked-in trousers. Khan’s crew may look like a bunch of New Romantics who have just saw Mad Max 2, but they get away with it. ILM’s work, particularly when it comes to the Mutara Nebula, and the spatial planes of hide-and-seek as the craft chase or evade, are exactly how special effects should be employed to advance story (and crucially, to create a clear sense of location and correlation).
James Horner’s score is shockingly good – still easily the best thing he has done (he’s ripped himself off a number of times, and you can hear precursors in Wolfen and subsequent lifts in Aliens). It’s sinister, mysterious, brooding where it needs to be, barnstorming at times (the fully fledged Khan theme during the attack by Reliant) and astute enough to give characters (Kirk, Khan, Spock) recognisable motifs and thus clearer definition and impact. It’s everything a great score should be.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out in a year well-represented by science fiction and fantasy, and as a retuning of Trek, budget consciously and tonally more focused on action (or dynamism, at least) than musing, it was a big hit, with only E.T. proving more popular in its genre (but then, it was more popular than everything). It certainly deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as its then poorly received but now rightly seen as classic peers of the same year, Blade Runner and The Thing. I mentioned that Meyer was no titan as a director, but Nimoy’s subsequent, merely adequate, effort underlines just how accomplished and seamless the work here is. Unless something pretty stunning happens, The Wrath of Khan has been and always will be my favourite Star Trek movie.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.